Language: June 2004 Archives

Goldfish Reads Greek

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Linguist Geoff Pullum finds another example of someone finding an animal that can learn through conditioning to form associations between words in human language and actions or things in the world and then acting as if the animal has understood human language. It's a perfectly fine experiment to see what the cognitive capacities of dogs are, but Pullum says this is like teaching a goldfish to associate a Greek letter with a certain action and then saying it understands Greek. It's not quite as bad as that, but it's really close.

Bill Poser at Language Log has defended the expression 'more perfect'. His reasoning is that we can speak of things being absolutely perfect, and therefore we already admit of degrees of perfection. So those who say that once something is perfect it can't be more or less so are ignoring the semantics of the word in its regular use. It also impugns the United States Constitution in its use of 'more perfect' to describe our hoped approach toward perfection as a country ("in order to form a more perfect Union"). Christians have a similar notion, expressed in Paul's descriptions of believers growing more and more like Christ, though I don't know if the Greek ever has an expression parallel to this one. The concept is clearly there, though, and that's all you need to show that there's no grammatical insanity or contradiction in such expressions.

This got me thinking about other constructions like this. Grammar police (as distinguished from legitimate grammarians who study grammar as a discipline wihtin linguistics) often fume at 'more pregnant', since one is either pregnant or not pregnant. How can a binary property with only two values admit of degrees? Once you think about it, it shouldn't be hard to consider how almost any supposedly binary term can admit of vagueness. Philosophers like 'flat', since it's got an absolute reading according to which nothing is flat but ideal geometric planes, but all sorts of things are more or less flat without being absolutely flat.

Many people consider it an article of faith that you should capitalize every word that could possibly be related to God. Those who don't think about it much will just capitalize the personal pronouns. Occasionally it extends to adjectives (e.g. "God is a Holy God.") Sometimes adverbs, nouns referring to divine attributes, or even verbs join in the fun. For a spoof on this, see this piece at The Holy Observer.

I don't even capitalize divine pronouns, and I have very specific reasons. It's not out of lack of reverence for God. My reasons are largely biblical ones. The Bible doesn't say not to capitalize these words (though it doesn't say we should do so either). It does fail to capitalize them itself, at least in the original manuscripts (except when it capitalizes every letter). Hebrew doesn't have a distinction between capitals and lowercase, and Aramaic uses the same alphabet (I think). Greek does have the distinction, but the New Testament manuscripts are either all caps or all lowercase.

Another Roundup

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I've got too many things to blog about again, so here we go.

Jonathan Ichikawa has a nice post at Fake Barn Country about obesity and determinism. I think I agree with everything he says. (It's also at his own blog, but there aren't any comments there yet. If you're interested in looking at all possible comments, it's worth checking both.)

Tiger! Tiger! has a great post on arguments for atheism. The author is an atheist but is acknowleding the insufficiency of the best arguments for atheism. I think I agree with every word up to a certain point. At the end, there's an appeal to a hermeneutic of suspicion as a final method of arguing for atheism, but I wonder if again this is at best at argument for agnosticism, since of course you can apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the atheistic framework as well (and the atheistic explanations of evidence and experiences pointing to theism) by explaining the atheistic worldview in terms of Romans 1 and the fall of humanity.

Saddam's doctor gives some inside dirt. (via The Limitless)

Stuart Buck puts Brian Leiter in his place with a careful examination of a new poll that shows the overall increasing mistrust of the media from both political parties. Leiter was trying to use it to show that Republicans are stupid for not trusting C-SPAN and that Republicans are simply mad at the press for questioning Bush and no longer groveling to him (as if they ever did). Stuart points out that the poll shows that Democrats are growing distrustful of all the media sources, that the Wall Street Journal is the biggest drop in trustworthiness according to Republicans, that Democrats and Republicans trust both Fox News at nearly statistically equivalent rates to each other, and Democrats are distrusting enough of C-SPAN that they fall prey to his charge of stupidity if Republicans do (not that the charge applies anyway if you understand what they are distrusting, on which see his argument).

Eugene Volokh, as far as I can tell, is a standard pro-choice libertarian, but he's willing to acknowledge that, even though both sides of the abortion debate are guilty of euphemistic and dysphemistic language, the mainstream media really do show a bias toward the euphemisms and dysphemisms of the pro-choice side of the debate.

Donald Sensing at One Hand Clapping notices how Bush's order in 'women and men' sends a strong signal to Muslim practices that marginalize women. It's little things like this that show that Bush really isn't like a lot of Republicans of the past (or at least of the era since the 60s when Republicans were the civil rights party). The Bush Administration consciously thinks about things like this.

Joanne Jacobs connects talking to kids (including to babies), grades/test scores, class, and the racial achievement gap. I don't think everything she says follows from the data, but it's fascinating stuff. My comment there is sufficient to show where I disagree.

Jollyblogger has an excellent post on metaphor and whether Harry Potter can be morally redeeming for a Christian who believes the occult is evil. It's one of the best defenses of popular fiction with elements hyper-fundamentalists would reject that I've seen in a long time, using the examples of Hosea's marriage to a practicing prostitute and Isaiah's walking around "naked" (both commands from God) for an interesting point. He didn't say what I thought was the most obvious thing to say, which is that magic in Harry Potter isn't what's condemned in the Bible, since it's a natural ability of the characters in that fictional world rather than a supernatural ability not of one's own but sought out through practices involving demonic beings.

Reagan's Remains

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[Disclaimer: I hope people don't find this post irreverent or anything. I hold President Reagan in the highest regard. He was easily among my six favorite presidents, and he defined the presidency for me in my formative years (ages 5-13). If you don't know me well, just be aware that I'm happy to discuss something I care about an awful lot with cold detachment and dispassion, and I'm doing that here. This is about the issues and not the man, and I don't seek to dishonor his memory in my wondering about language use regarding corpses and what they become. We all die, and we all talk about what's left over afterward. This is just the occasion of my wondering about that.]

I heard someone on the radio this morning talking about carting Reagan's remains around various places. That sounded strange to my ears. I'm used to hearing people talk about where someone's remains are buried, but that brings to my mind the idea of someone who has been dead long enough for the body to have decayed significantly. Thus the remains really are only what remains of what was originally buried. To use 'remains' of a corpse of someone who died a few days ago doesn't seem to me to be correct usage. You would call this his body. Only after it's decayed a bit should that become inappropriate, with the need to call what's left his remains. Or am I missing something? Is this a regional dialect difference?

I've been wondering about a common rhetorical trick that really offends the opposing party in a debate. Often in arguments, we present unfair portraits of others' views, unfair because they wouldn't themselves describe it that way. But if it's an accurate description of their view or the results of it, and they just don't acknowledge that their view has that consequence, why not describe them as holding that view? The charitable opponent will recognize that they just don't see the consequence and therefore won't believe it. I once thought it was always worth describing things the way people would describe their own views. It's only fair to ascribe to them only the views they themselves hold and not the views that others wrongly take them to hold. I'm now beginning to think that it's not so simple as that.

Mark Liberman at Language Log debunks the "Bush mangles 'Abu Graib' pronunciation" story. His overall rating for Bush is a solid B. His overall rating for the Reuters transcriptions of Bush's pronunciation is a weak C-. (In a later post, Geoff Pullum seems to give Bush even more credit.) Liberman thinks Bush should have done better as often as he's had to hear and say it, but the fact that everyone around him is probably getting it wrong gives me reason to hesitate endorsing his conclusion. By the way, the proper transcription in English should be something like 'Ghurayb'. Given that, I'm not even sure I've heard one person pronouncing it right.

Someone with too much time came up with a county-by-county map of dialect differences for referring to soda (though I still think 'coke' fails to refer to anything that isn't at least cola, regardless of how many people use it with that intent). A breakdown of percentage of people shows what the other map doesn't, that 'soda' is the majority term.

It quite amazes me how many people don't know that 'pop' refers to what's basically a piece of candy on a stick that you put in your mouth and suck on. But then many of these are the same people who don't know what a bubbler is, instead referring to it by the word for statues in parks that spit water out of their mouths. 'Drinking fountain', however, is acceptable but too long for casual use. It would be like using 'carbonated beverage' for soda.

Other studies of dialect differences are here, including maps and a page for each state including what percentage of people answered which way. Thanks to Language Log for the links.

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